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Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By JAY WEISER
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The media satire extended to cable: Brenda became the liberal voice of a screamfest hosted by conservative Slash Burns (a Bill O’Reilly look­alike), but it turned out that he loved the abuse; it hooked viewers. Forced off his show after the murder of his mistress/junior staffer, hyperambitious hottie Très Smart, Burns does the Washington version of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, working the analogous shtick as a liberal cable host who had seen the error of his ways. (Poor Très violated a core Brenda Starr mistress principle: Buy a large life insurance policy even before you go out to buy milk.) Plots could be prescient: A fake janitor stole The Flash’s unpublished scoops for a competitor years before Rebekah Brooks’s similar trick for News of the World came to light.

Brenda’s villains were Nietzschean Superman-wannabes ripped straight from the headlines, like preachy environmentalist/guitarist/artesian water adulterator Spring Chicwater (with a striking resemblance to rock star Sting) and celebrity chef/ex-con/Paul Prudhomme clone Rock Roquefort. Most memorably, Schmich created what she calls “a string of shrewd older women.” Mrs. Burns (Slash’s mother) was so retro that she never even got a first name. Channeling Maggie from Bringing Up Father, she wielded her rolling pin to smash three skulls into oblivion before plying Brenda with home-baked poisoned cookies. (Mrs. Burns ultimately lost the mother of all mother-in-law/daughter-in-law battles, dueling Slash’s wife with shovels over Brenda’s open grave as she sought to bury Brenda alive.)

Most of the women were high-powered professionals. Game-fixing ­Viennese sports psychologist Dr. Anna List (“Etics is like BMW—nice but not necessary”) comforted tearful athletes with a box of tissues next to her Freudian couch—and hypnotized Brenda to kill on command at the word “Pulitzer.” Emotionally desperate Dr. Dolores Pain spirited Basil from her EMT unit to a remote mountain retreat, where she danced around his IV gurney singing “I Feel Pretty.” Book editor Snootella, with a stable of bestselling fake authors and an exquisite pageboy hairdo that shimmered and danced as if auditioning to join Anna Wintour, killed to keep giving readers the false truths they craved.

Most shaded was Lady Trumpster, who, like her doppelgänger Katherine Graham, earned her newspaper empire the old-fashioned way: through her husband’s sudden death. Lady Trumpster’s professional success came at a family cost: Lear-like, she constantly lamented the limitations of her twin henchmen sons. In a London speedboat chase set against a fast-receding Tower Bridge (one of Brigman’s best sequences), one son failed to drown Brenda despite dumping her, drugged, into the Thames, while the other, zooming behind, betrayed his mother by fishing the star reporter out of the deep.  

Brenda was constantly in peril: clapped with earphones blasting Springsteen’s hits at killer decibel levels; bound with chicken-basting thread as Rock ignited a grease fire (“I’ll bet Ellen Goodman doesn’t get tied up this much,” she whined); awaiting defenestration in a fake murder-suicide. Messick had bequeathed Schmich a
character who was a bit of a ditz. But where that other working-woman comics ditz, Cathy, could only say “Ack!” at each reverse, Brenda—a combination of Nick and Nora Charles without the money, Philip Marlowe without the gloom, Don Quixote without the illusions, and Columbo with an inner life—unditzed herself to expose the corruption behind the luxurious façades.

Brenda Starr finally married Basil St. John in 1976 (President Ford congratulated the couple), and then divorced him, but the mystery man kept coming back. (Readers demanded it, Schmich reports.) Endlessly ruminating over the relationship, Brenda couldn’t move on, even while comatose in the hospital, mumbling about decades of failures to the excruciation of her visiting colleagues.

Typically for the postfeminist world, Brenda’s solace was a constructed family: When not rescuing Brenda,
gay hairdresser-turned-entertainment-reporter Uncle Spiff would engage her in long philosophical walks.
Spy-turned-Oprahfied-talk-show-host Wanda Fonda was a close friend—and, awkwardly, the mother of Basil’s son Sage. When Basil vanished yet again, leaving Wanda on her own, Brenda, like any devoted turn-of-the-century pre-stepmother, was present for the birth of the child, and later chaperoned the eye-patched, mixed-race boy on a journey to find his father in the mythical Central Asian republic of Kazookistan.

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